Today we are turning to various arguments against the existence of God, starting with those of one Antony Flew, an historically fairly recent English philosopher (1923-2010).
Flew was an atheist for most of his life, and he insisted that the burden of proving God’s existence lies on the believer, not that the burden of disproving God’s existence lies on the disbeliever. Just as the accused in court is “innocent until proven guilty,” God is non-existing until proven existing. Since believers can’t prove the existence of God, their claims concerning God are “vacuous.”
This view of the atheist is called “negative atheism,” which does not necessitate bringing arguments to defend its position. Positive atheism would be bringing specific arguments against belief in God.
So, I guess Flew’s “negative atheism” demands the counterpoint of a “positive theism” that lists various specific proofs for God’s existence.
I also guess that most people, reading the word “atheism,” define it as “asserting that God doesn’t exist and bringing reasons why not.” But Flew defines the “a-” a little differently. He says the “a-” just means “not,” and the way I’m understanding him, he sees this as a kind of default reasonable position. “Atheist” = “not theist” until convinced otherwise by definitive proofs.
positive atheist: someone who uses proofs to assert that God doesn’t exist
negative atheist: someone who is simply not theist
The theist’s job, says Flew, is first to define exactly their concept of God. There are so many ideas and “different gods” floating around out there, you have to define what kind of God you’re talking about before you can even have a coherent conversation. Secondly, the theist then must bring convincing proofs that “their ‘God'” in particular actually exists.
I really like this aspect of Flew’s argument. “What do you mean by ‘God’?” or “How do you define ‘God’?” strike me as questions that can open doors via lively interest instead of slamming them shut via intractable assumptions. In my experience, even among Christians who came from the same denomination (sometimes even the same local church) as I did, there were/are as many individual concepts of “God” as there were/are people. This kind of gets me into the Christian mystics mindset that as soon as you speak the word “God,” you are lying — because whatever you conceive of as the nature of God, your conception falls utterly short of God’s true essence.
But I truly do digress. And I jump ahead. I think we’re getting to the mystics a couple weeks from now.
Back to Flew!
“A fly and a flea and a flue….”
I almost feel like he’s really more concerned with how we debate the existence of God than with the effects of said debate? Maybe I just haven’t read far enough or let it all percolate enough inside the bean machine that is my mind.
Flew makes another point that strikes a chord in me. He says that a person can be a true believer in something without that something actually being real. Well, duh, right? But he’s creating an effective contrast between belief and knowledge. Knowledge is based on fact. But just because I believe something does not make it fact, even if I believe it to be fact. All knowledge contains some element or form of true belief in the subject in question. But true belief doesn’t necessarily contain any knowledge whatsoever. Not even when the subject that’s believed in actually exists in reality.
To get specific: I might truly believe that God exists. And God might truly exist. But just because God exists and I truly believe that God exists, does not mean I have knowledge about God’s existing. It still only means that I truly believe it. If I want to elevate my belief to a knowledge, then I have to add accurate information and tangible, comprehensible evidence to my belief.
I think I’m slightly in love with Flew’s argument? It’s very elegant, and challenging in a subtle manner that feels kind to me. It’s a gentle challenge to the assumption that if you don’t believe in God, you have to defend yourself. When I consider how Christianity has historically treated the “unbeliever,” Flew’s is a compassion I can appreciate whether I’m theist or atheist.
It reminds me very much of my high school friend Thorsten, who was the first person in my life to challenge my faith, and he did it in a very kind, gentle manner: “Courtney, it doesn’t matter to me whether you believe in God or not. But if you’re going to believe, you have to be able to give reasons why.”
Thorsten wasn’t asking for a list of proofs, but to a previously-unchallenged 18-year-old, just receiving a request for reasons was enough to start me on a serious path of questioning and refusing easy answers.
I also really appreciate that Flew delineates how you really wouldn’t want to live in a society in which we are all guilty until proven innocent. This would guarantee fewer acquittals for the guilty, sure. But it would also result in the incarceration (or even execution) of a whole lot more innocent people than what our society (speaking from an American perspective) already tolerates. (Don’t get me started on our burgeoning dystopia.)
SUPPLEMENTAL: Flew’s essay “Theology and Falsification”
Two statements in this essay strike me as particularly important — maybe not for others, but for myself.
“A fine brash hypothesis may thus be killed by inches, the death by a thousand qualifications.”
I make what I think is a definitive statement. Someone questions part of it.
I backpedal just a little and qualify my original statement on that particular point. Someone questions another part of my statement.
Once more, I backpedal a little and qualify my statement on this next particular point. And someone questions another part of my statement.
A third time, I backpedal….
And on and on, potentially regressing to infinity. But I don’t have to pursue it that far. This isn’t turtles all the way down — because at some point, long before infinity, I will have qualified my original statement out of existence. It has now become something else entirely, and it might even go so far as to completely negate my original assertion. My turtle has turned into a potted plant.
It’s a dangerous business, ya’ll, letting your beliefs out the front door of your mind. You let them out into the road of conversation, and if you don’t keep a claw-fingered death-grip on them, there’s no knowing what completely opposing beliefs you might be swept into adopting.
Doubting is deliciously dangerous.
“That which can be destroyed by the truth, should be.” — P.C. Hodgell, Seeker’s Mask
“What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?”
That part, y’all. THAT PART.
That question should be asked weekly in every church in existence.